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David, Study for The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons

Met curator Perrin Stein on subjectivity in Jacques-Louis David’s Study for The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, 1787.

This sheet is a compositional study for The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (Musée du Louvre, Paris), painted by David on the eve of the French Revolution and exhibited shortly after the Fall of the Bastille. As with many of his iconic Neoclassical canvases, the subject was drawn from Roman history but found great resonance in the context of contemporary events. The canvas depicts an episode from the life of Lucius Junius Brutus, who put to an end the brutal régime of Tarquin, Rome’s last king, and established the first Roman Empire, only to later find his two sons embroiled in a royalist conspiracy. True to his political convictions, Brutus condemned his sons to death. The novelty of David’s painting is its focus, not on the executions, but on the wrenching domestic aftermath. David’s Neoclassical style is fully formed here and can be seen in the clean geometry of the architectural setting, the arrangement of the figures in a relief-like plane, the linear treatment of the forms, and the cool monochrome palette. The poses of the main figures, from the brooding Brutus cast in shadow at the left, to his anguished wife and daughters to the right, as well as the furniture and accessories, are all based on antiquities copied by the artist while he was a student in Rome.

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Video transcript

This study by Jacques Louis David i s for one of his most iconic paintings "The Lichters Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons". It depicts Brutus who lived during the brutal regime of the last king of Rome and led the revolt, that established the first Republic. He discovered his two sons had been involved in a conspiracy to return the monarchs to power found guilty of treason he had to order their execution. David did not choose the moment of the execution or the tribunal. He chose instead the wrenching dramatic aftermath and this had never been depicted visually before, so in essence he was creating the scene from scratch. He chose to put the protagonist Brutus in the shadows his back turned to the scene behind him where the lichters are carrying the dead bodies of his sons. The brightest part of the composition are his wife and daughters lit up from the sunlight pouring in from above. After he had created this very finished compositional drawing he had one more epiphany and he changed the grouping of the women on the right. In this drawing, he’s envisioning this mother reaching, straining towards something she can never have back and at the same time she’s supporting the weight of this girl whose legs have gone out from under her. When I saw this for the first time, I felt myself react as a mother and I think David got at some essential aspect of being a parent because once you are a parent you never forget. The public responded to this with great immediacy. The subject became emblematic of many of the struggles that they faced during the Terror as the choices between patriotic acts and personal sacrifice became real for everyone in the audience. He’s using the story to draw out these human urges and reactions that everyone can feel. Jacques-Louis David gave me permission to be subjective. It’s not that objectivity is impossible. I just feel over time, that it’s perhaps overrated. It changes who I am and this drawing changes along with me.